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Jan. 19 2010 - 4:05 pm | 978 views | 1 recommendation | 13 comments

Top seven myths about public housing

w:Mr.

I pity the fool who believes these housing myths. Image via Wikipedia

Think you know something about public housing? Not so fast. See if you’ve fallen prey to these top seven myths people believe about public housing:

1. Public housing residents don’t pay rent.

So not true. Public housing is not free – it’s subsidized. Residents pay 30% of their income as rent, which includes all their income – even welfare. The minimum rent you can pay is $75 a month, but most of the residents I have met pay between $300 and $500 a month. It’s certainly cheaper than market rate housing, but it’s not free and never has been.


2. Everyone is on welfare.

Many public housing residents work, but they work very low paying jobs. According to CHA’s numbers for 2008, 37 percent of public housing families work. Many others are on disability or social security (disability numbers among the poor are way higher than among the middle class – a disparity probably due to the health care gap). Only 14 percent are on welfare.

3. Criminals live in public housing.

Applying for public housing requires an extensive application process with a criminal background check for the leaseholder and anyone living there with them.

Not to mention the fact that you can get kicked out of public housing for an arrest without a conviction, or because someone in your house or a guest did any kind of criminal activity in your unit or even nearby.

That being said, trouble often comes from guests – boyfriends, brothers, uncles – who are not and cannot get a lease because of their criminal background, but are still around enough to cause trouble for their families.

4. Public housing residents live in deplorable conditions.

A few still do, but most of the horrible public housing that you’ve heard about has been demolished. There are a few buildings and residents who still live in terrible conditions, but there’s really only a handful left in the city.

And within those buildings, families often keep really nice apartments. The building around them may be old and poorly maintained, but you would be surprised what someone can do with a small, cinderblock unit. People create home in all kinds of conditions.

5. No one wants to live in public housing.

Then why does the waiting list have 55,000 people on it?

People want to live in public housing, especially now that it’s been revamped. And moreover, people need public housing. There are a lot of low-wage workers who simply can’t afford what market rate housing costs in the city and deserve decent conditions to raise their families.

6. Public Housing is too expensive.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s budget for 2010 is $43.7 billion. Sound like a lot? It is, but in comparison, it’s peanuts.

According to this conservative site, we spend almost $800 billion on health and human services, $700 billion on the military and match that amount on social security. And only a portion of HUD’s budget goes to public housing.

Plus, HUD requires that any public housing built be under certain cost parameters, which are set pretty darn low. In general, over the entire course of public housing’s history, it’s been grossly underfunded, often times to the point of neglect.

7. Public housing residents are a drain on society.

What do Mr. T, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and ball player Kirby Puckett have in common? They were all from Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. Musician Curtis Mayfield grew up in Cabrini-Green. And anyone who’s paying attention knows that our most recent Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor came from public housing.

These are just a few examples. Public housing has raised many wildly successful people over the years. Not everyone in public housing is caught in the trap of poverty. Many do rise up and become famous, successful and noteworthy.

In addition to public housing’s celebrities, many of the country’s janitors, clerks, teacher aide’s, waitresses, medical assistants, and other low-wage but essential workers, live in public housing. They may not be famous, but they contribute something important and necessary to our country.

So, how’d you do? Did you believe the lies? Did any of these change how you see public housing or public housing residents?

Let me know.


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  1. collapse expand

    Very enlightening piece Megan. I admit, I thought 4 of the myths were fact.

  2. collapse expand

    #3 is the so very true, if you harbor, participate , associate with known drug dealers, if you don’t pass information that can remove these folks from your development your guilty as the dealer on the corner….

    ps….Would live in Chicago Public Housing?

    55,000 very desperate people.

    • collapse expand

      The short answer to your question is yes (would I live in Chicago’s public housing?).

      The long answer is yes now, no many years ago. I think the Chicago Housing Authority has done a lot in at least getting rid of unsafe, overly dense buildings and replacing them with new, decent housing. There are still a few buildings left, and to be honest, I wouldn’t live in those. Most of them, I don’t think would pass a housing inspection.

      But the new units, yes, even the places that are 100 percent public housing and not mixed income. I probably wouldn’t live at Altgeld, just because of its distance and isolation from the city. I have actually thought about applying for an affordable unit in one of the mixed income communities. The waiting list is so long that I figure I would never get in, even though my income would make me eligible.

      I believe public housing and mixed income can work, and I would be willing to move there to show my commitment.

      Those are my honest thoughts and perceptions.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I’d like to second Marjie’s comments, and admit I thought 5 were facts…

  4. collapse expand

    I’d like to add that some on PH are due to not being able to find a job with their degree certification and therefore they struggle to make ends meet.

  5. collapse expand

    Thanks for writing this. I work for the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities — CLPHA — and it is refreshing to see someone tackle these myths.

    http://www.clpha.org

  6. collapse expand

    Thank you, thank you, Megan! Print this on a billboard. Let’s have a Parade of Subsidized Homes and hear people’s own stories. AND, let’s stop using these myths to attack a vital component of any effectively functioning civil society: Affordable, decent housing for ALL. We must stop the evictions as a mechanism for destroying public housing. Gentrification is not a victimless crime.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

    In addition to being a journalist, I also teach dance for the Chicago Public Schools. I don't just do it for the money. I love children and love arts education. I'm also on the board of a new nonprofit dedicated to helping the underserved find jobs called Employing Hope. I write fiction, keep house, and am generally a renaissance woman.

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